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Security in Context: The BeyondTrust Blog

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Bringing you news and commentary on solutions and strategies for protecting critical IT infrastructure in the context of your business.

Helpdesk Troubleshooting with PowerBroker

Posted September 5, 2012    Peter McCalister

In the past, organizations would rely on helpdesk technicians walking from desktop to desktop to troubleshoot desktop problems for end users. Nowadays, “Sneakernet” is almost dead, and helpdesks are levering remote control products to troubleshoot problems for end users. Remote control is great for troubleshooting, but when a user is running as a standard user (or non-administrator), many tools and tasks that traditionally are used by the helpdesk may not behave properly when the logged on user is a standard user.

There are two typical solutions that many organizations rely on that are built into Windows. First, is the old standby, RunAs. RunAs allows the helpdesk tech to run apps and system tasks with administrator privileges when remote controlling the machine. Second, is using an RDP connection where the helpdesk tech logs in as a different user to troubleshoot. These approaches are both fairly effective for troubleshooting, but the problem is that neither allows the helpdesk to troubleshoot problems as the currently logged on user, they both require that the helpdesk tech utilize a different identity which many not help them figure out the problem. Additionally, the account that the helpdesk tech uses is typically a member of the Domain Admin group. Members of the Domain Admins group are also members of the local admin group on all machines in the enterprise–including servers. Obviously there is danger here.

I don’t know many enterprises that are comfortable with widely distributing domain admin passwords to users, even helpdesk staff. Many organizations try to avoid this for the obvious security reasons, and instead provide alternate credentials that are not members of the Domain Admins group. However, this approach still suffers from the problems associated with troubleshooting as a different user.

A more effective way to allow a helpdesk tech to troubleshoot problems, and troubleshoot problems in the logged on users’ security context, is to use PowerBroker’s challenge response authentication mechanism on a Shell Rule or On-Demand elevation rule. The Shell Rule allows a user to right-click and run an application with elevated privileges. When a Challenge/Response message is attached to the Shell Rule, the user would be required to relay an authentication code to the helpdesk in order to obtain a passcode to run the application. Since the helpdesk tech is responsible for generating the passcodes in the first place, he or she can simply generate codes themselves when troubleshooting during a remote control session. For more details on Challenge/Response, read our recent blog post.

It may seem easier to simply provide helpdesk techs with domain admin credentials to troubleshoot problems, in the long run, it is never a good idea to widely distribute any super user credential. By using PowerBroker, it is much easier to provide the helpdesk techs with the tools they need in order to troubleshoot problems in the most secure way possible.

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